Equality Starts With 'Her'

UB English professor fights racial discrimination

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The Spectrum

There was one thing on 7-year-old Hershini Young's mind: Paddleboats.

She imagined herself and her father, Surendra Bhana, gliding across the waters in a small boat. She, of course, would do the paddling.

Bhana, a history professor, knew the boats were off limits to them, an Indian father and his multi-racial daughter. He could read the sign - White Persons Only. But his headstrong daughter, who believed she could be anything, wouldn't listen. She snatched the money from her father's hand and ran up to the dock with excitement.

She remembers the worker glaring down at her.

"Whites only," she said.

Young turned and walked away slowly. How could her father have let her humiliate herself like that? How could he have subjected her to such disappointment?

How often would the disappointment continue for her?

Often.

Young, now an associate professor of English at UB, spent her childhood in Durban, South Africa under apartheid. As a child, she lived in a different neighborhood from white children, went to different schools, and drank from different water fountains.

Her parents, both academics, moved the family to the U.S. in 1987 when Young was 19.

But her early years shaped her - transforming her from that idealistic 7-year-old into a professor of English, passionate about race, discrimination, and awareness.

Young, now a confident, independent, and mystifyingwoman, walks through campus with her head held high while maintaining an ever-approachable demeanor. She teaches classes such as Contemporary African American Literature, Queer Studies, and Gender, Sexuality, and Race. Her research focuses on racial awareness.

Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, but for Young, issues of race persisted.

When she moved to the U.S. she found that it wasn't unlike her home country. It was also a tortured place where skin color, connections, and cash matter more than many admit.

Young makes sure to teach that to her students.

"There's no point in learning all of this. If you don't change the world we live in, then it's just an exercise," Young said. "The point is to learn about how we live and to make some changes."

Racial integration

When Durban started to experiment with integration in schools, Young was the first black child in an all-girl, all-white boarding school. To enter the school, Young first took an entry exam. They chose her because she scored the highest.

Bhana chose the school because he thought it would benefit his daughter. He was not scared of how the new learning environment might affect Young - the goal was to provide a better education.

That's not to say the experience was painless.

Many parents did not want their children to share a school, let alone a classroom, with a black child so they took their kids out of school before Young enrolled in classes.

Even with such a remarkable opportunity, Young was still constantly told no.

No, she couldn't board at the school with the other girls. No, she couldn't use the same changing facilities as her classmates when they went swimming. No, she couldn't sit at the bus stop while she waited to go home. No, she could not travel to other schools to perform the plays she was a part of.

Signs surrounded her telling her where she could and could not go. The words were different, but the meaning was clear: No.

Still, Young kept going.

Across the Atlantic Sea

Despite the odds against her, Young earned a bachelor's degree from Kansas University (KU), and she went on to complete her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. She took her first teaching job at the University of California at Riverside before coming to Buffalo.

None of that would have happened if her parents hadn't decided to leave South Africa.

The tense atmosphere within the country and the encroaching of the country's politics into Young's parents' academic sphere prompted their exodus. Bhana heard talk of his university falling into the hands of apartheid-supporting Indian politicians and he was forced with a decision that would affect his entire family.

He and his wife had offers for three-year visiting professor positions at KU. They had to decide whether it was worth it to leave South Africa for a period of three years or the rest of their lives. They were not given a leave of absence from their current jobs, but they quit, packed up their lives, and left despite the uncertainty of the future.

The family had mixed feelings about the trip across the ocean, but for Young it was a tangible escape from her problems. She knew one thing: she wanted to be any place but where she was.

With sandals on her feet in the middle of winter, Young arrived in Kansas. All she could think when she got there was: "it's cold."

"I went to an all-girl school [in South Africa]. It was very British so it was very proper and then I show up and it's this huge American high school," Young said. "People were kissing next to lockers and they were wearing all sorts of different [clothing]. There were [no] uniforms. I was totally overwhelmed."

Young could not understand how students could get away with this at school. In her South African school, it was cause for expulsion.

Racism across borders

The move to America was a difficult transition for Young. She was over-optimistic and believed it would be the solution to all of her problems. All too soon, she realized that no matter where you are on the globe, people are people. Although there was no legal racism in the United States as there was in South Africa that did not mean it did not exist.

America was different, yet it was the same. The atmosphere was something completely different from what she was used to but racism existed - albeit covertly instead of legally.

Instead of discouraging Young, it just made her more passionate.

"She developed her own sense of justice and fair play and her sense of persona [growing up]," Bhana said. "She rejected racism and bigotry. It's a value that defines her life."

That persona came from her family.

A literary upbringing

Her father is her main inspiration. She watched Bhana's commitment to changing the world through teaching and resolved that she would do the same.

Bhana was a part of the anti-apartheid movement as a student at Witwatersrand University and continued when he became a professor. He held firm to the idea that human beings are to be valued for their humanity, regardless of race or ethnicity.

"The harsh lesson of living in South Africa was the poverty and degradation of human beings," Bhana said. "It broke my heart to see suffering as much as it did Hershini's."

Bhana and his wife, Kastoor Bhana, were both academics. Bhana was the head of the history department at the University of Durban-Westville (UKZN) and Kastoor was the head of the psychology department. Kastoor was the first black woman to chair a psychology department at UKZN. Their status as academics allowed them to have friends of both races, an opportunity that many others did not have. Their worldview was more open than others because of this, according to Bhana.

Bhana was fundamentally about looking for truth, no matter how ugly it was, and he was adamant about raising a daughter who wasn't sheltered.

"I have inculcated one value over and over: dig deep within yourself to confront demons," Bhana said. "Do not be upset by major or minor issues - they will pass if we learn to use our inner resources. Be true to yourself."

Bhana also passed on his generosity of spirit to his daughter, Young said. He taught her that it's possible to understand people's feelings, that it's possible to understand why people do terrible things. Young learned how to be critical but not hurtful.

It was lessons like these that got Young through some of the toughest times of her life.

When things became difficult during her time in South Africa, Young relied on two things to keep her going: her parents and literature.

Young spent most of her free time at the library, sometimes reading up to four books a week.

"It got so that the librarians would give me the books and would ask me to write a little review," Young said. "My dad has one that he had framed when I was 10 years old and it's just a paragraph that was published in a newspaper that was like: 'Read this book because...' My father says that was the beginning of my career."

It was her ultimate escape. When things were unbearable around her, she found liberation in literature. She read "voraciously," Bhana said. Whether it was trashy romance novels or classic literature, Young's head was almost always found between pages.

She leaned on her parents for support as well. When she became too frustrated and began to doubt herself, her parents were the ones who lifted her up.

"My mom, she doesn't sugar coat anything, she'd just tell it to me straight," Young said. "So a lot of times she would just say: 'get up and go back out there.'"

Young took the experience in stride, focusing on her education rather than the malice around her.

The apartheid ended in 1994 and there was one thing running through Young's head: "I wish I was there." Although she wasn't there in person, she was there in spirit. The significance of that moment still resonated with her and her family.

Young's grandmother, who was over 80 years old, blind, unable to walk, and illiterate was finally given the power to vote. She wasn't able to record her vote by herself, so when she was asked for whom she wanted to vote, she yelled: "Mandela! Mandela!"

"It meant the world, because it meant that even my grandmother got to vote once before she died," Young said.

Legal racism finally ended in South Africa, but that doesn't stop Young's personal battle against intolerance.

A new generation

Young implements racial awareness in every aspect of her life - as a woman, professor, and mother. As her parents taught her race, so she does with her 8-year-old son.

She makes sure to teach him to be proud of who he is, that he doesn't fit easily into boxes society might try to stuff him in.

Young considers Buffalo to be "absolutely segregated." It would be easy as a middle class professor, Young said, to stick to the nicer areas of Buffalo. But she makes sure to attend events or even simply run errands in black communities as well as the mainly white communities.

Young placed her son in a Spanish immersion program to show him the different cultures Buffalo is filled with. The program places children whose first language is Spanish with English-speaking children. Spanish is the language of instruction.

It's a new program - an integration experiment of sorts, something Young has experienced herself.

"One of the things I really wanted [my son] to get a sense of is different languages, different cultures, and different social economic status," Young said.

Just like his mother, Young's son often gets asked questions about what he is. But Young has taught him that it's who he is that matters.

From student to teacher

This is Young's eighth year teaching at UB. She hopes to promote diversity within the English department - in the classes that are taught, the faculty that is hired, and the graduate students the department recruits.

Her classes concern African American literature and the Diaspora, or the scattering of people away from their ancestral homeland. Perceptions of race differ from country to country, Young said, and she works hard to address that.

Carlton Brock, a junior English major, was exposed to African American studies for the first time through Young's first-person experiences and unique perspective. Since Young lived through legal discrimination, her perspective is not the same as a professor who simply read about the apartheid in a textbook, according to Brock.

Young stresses the importance of "the other side," the people that didn't win - the idea that every person matters. Often, the topics drain Young. She refuses to read many of the novels she assigns at night, fearing how they might affect her before she sleeps.

In her own classes, she wants her students to walk away with the knowledge of how race still operates in the world. But discussing difficult topics - child soldiers, prostitution, slavery, and lynching - does not come easy. Not everyone agrees with her methods or opinions. End of semester evaluations sometimes label her racist, claiming she discriminates against white people.

Those callous words hurt Young. Her goal is to make people think. Her passion is to make her students aware of the world, and accusations like this trouble her.

She shows race through a "non-white point of view." When she says "we," many times she refers to black people, something people aren't used to and something that makes some uneasy.

She associates herself this way because she dealt with a foreign form of racism that many Americans are unaware of.

She asks difficult questions, she makes her students think and sometimes it's hard, but at the end of the day, students leave with motivation.

"She's allowed me to know how to articulate something and not be afraid to do what you want [just] because it's kind of tough," said Akinsele Walker, a senior English major. "If you do what you love and sacrifice for that love, everything will turn out all right. You just have to stick to it."

It's her passion and knowledge that keeps Brock going back to Young's class. After having just one conversation with her, it was evident to Brock that: "Hershini Young is everything that she presents to you. She's honest, and she's real about it."

Background is an important part of Young's teaching method - instead of just lecturing in front of a group of students, she discusses with individuals. She likes to know her students, where they come from, and if there's any extra help they need.

When she taught at Riverside, Young had a different audience. The student body was composed of mainly Latin students while at UB most of her students are from New York City and are more urban.

She understands that different cultures mean different cultural expectations, and her teaching must shape itself around that.

This is why many of her students value her above other professors.

"She cares, she's always prepared, she's knowledgeable, and she's engaged with the students more so than a lot of other professors here," Walker said. "[Her class] is intimate as opposed to just being a number, a statistic."

Young decorates the walls of her office with pictures of her family and posters of events she's helped students put together. On her windowsill sits paintings she was given by a student - a girl who had never painted until Young's class, who was inspired to finish an entire series.

When her students don't attend class, Young misses them. When her students move on, they keep in touch - she opens her email regularly to find one-liners saying: "I love you," or greeting cards in her mailbox.

Remembering the past but moving forward

Young's home in South Africa is still etched in her mind - the way she could see the ocean from her window, the smell of the country, the monkeys jumping across her roof. She misses her family and her old home, and although she's bringing her son there next year for a visit, she's still looking toward the future.

A scholar activist, Young's power to change the world lies in her classroom.

"The name of Hershini contains within it an intense emotional power that could drive you to put forth great effort to accomplish your ambitions and to do something noteworthy and worthwhile," according to kabalarians.com. "There are humanitarian ideals in this name, making you feel the urge to champion the cause of the downtrodden, the victims of circumstances and injustices."

Hershini Young has never stopped being that determined little girl. Since that day on the lake, Young no longer walks away when someone tells her no. She stands up proudly and asks questions, prompting others to do the same.

Email: features@ubspectrum.com